In December 2022, the European Union (EU) finally agreed on the text of its long-awaited Regulation on deforestation-free products (EUDR). For the first time companies selling certain products on the EU market will be punished if they are found to have contributed towards deforestation. This was the final stage in a long and often tortuous journey, in which forests were thrust centre-stage of EU policymaking. 2023 will be another crucial year for the EU and forests, especially since it will be followed by the EU’s ‘cooling off’ period, when no new policies are initiated, in the run-up to the 2024 European elections.
So what should we keep an eye on in 2023?
The EU Regulation on deforestation-free products – the work is just beginning. The law will come into force in 2024, but a lot of detail still needs to be resolved, as it is vague in several areas. These include determining how the country risk rating will work, and how the law will interact with the Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) and Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that the EU has signed with many forested countries. Fern will make the case for Strategic Partnerships to support producer countries to tackle deforestation across the whole country, rather than simply the EU supply chain. We will also discuss ways to support smallholders to mitigate any additional burdens the law might place on them. Stay tuned, as we’ll publish a blue-print for what these partnerships should look like in a few weeks.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues to have devastating impacts on innocent lives, and is having major implications for energy and forest debates in Brussels. The EU was considering ruling out subsidies and other incentives for the worst forms of biomass, and excluding biomass from the fast-track permitting process for renewable energy projects – but this could now be put in jeopardy because of the biomass industry’s lobbying and the feeling of emergency among policy makers. Where will the EU land on this?
The push for renewable energy has also sped-up the need for the minerals that the low carbon transition relies on. The EU will launch the Critical Raw Materials Act in March – but mining for many of these minerals - bauxite, lithium, and cobalt, to name just a few, overlaps with forests and community lands. How will the EU mitigate this risk? Fern will be developing new work in this area to try to prevent the clean energy transition from being tarnished.
With a new President of Brazil comes a new dawn for Indigenous Peoples and forests. What will this mean about the EU Mercosur Free Trade Agreement, which in its most recent form, would be a disaster for both? Civil society in all countries strongly believe it needs to be reopened and re-negotiated with the climate and peoples’ rights at its centre, or discarded entirely. Will our Presidents listen? Fern’s Brazilian partners will come to Brussels in early 2023 to make their case.
There is still no agreed way of showing a complete picture of the state of European forests. This is a problem that the EU must act on since forests are a shared competence. In many EU countries, forests are governed with a distinct lack of transparency, and with little regard paid to the views of civil society – and EU institutions also have a long way to go on both counts. Fern believes those two elements should be at the core of the EU Forest Monitoring and Nature Restoration laws, which will be discussed in 2023 and are badly needed if we are to restore European forests.
Sweden, which has been a major thorn in the side, trying to stop effective action on EU forests, will be at the helm of the European Council for the next six months. So far, they have been surprisingly silent. Will they stay neutral, as they are meant to as the Council President? We have teamed up for the next six months with our Swedish partners at the Saami Council, Skyddaskogen and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) to keep a watchful eye!
On that note: We are hiring in our European Forests team! Fern is such a great place to work that such opportunities don’t come up often – so please do pass on to your networks!
Version updated 10.01.2023 – this article was edited in order to capture the fact that EU shares several forest-related competences with Member States, including environment, climate and agriculture.